Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, January 26, 2015

Another church is closed. Why?

In the southern Massachusetts Berkshires, churches are struggling. The American Baptist congregation closest  to our house shut its doors for the last time this past Sunday. The local Episcopal church that I regularly attend is much further away. For some years, when I didn't feel like driving that far, I went to the little Baptist church. I loved it. When I started going, the elderly part-time supply pastor preached simple biblical sermons full of living faith, and his wife played the well-loved 19th century hymns on the little pump organ. There were usually about 20-22 parishioners present, and not all were older people.

Then a new pastor came, in his late 50s, full of vigor and ideas. His sermons were really excellent, and his missionary background was evident in his obvious Christ-centered faith. People responded to his gospel preaching, at first. However, he forced the congregation to change too much too fast. He asked for, and got, an expensive sound system for a tiny church which had never needed even a microphone. He insisted on one of those electronic keyboard things for his wife to play, and he expected the congregation to be enthusiastic about the new, unfamiliar music. He put a cross on the front of the church, which offended Baptist sensibilities. He was critical of the congregation's supposed lack of love. People felt alienated and uncared for, and they began to stay away. Then he and his wife, feeling unappreciated, abruptly departed, with some unkind words for the congregation. It was downhill from there. Two months ago, the six remaining members voted 5-1 to close. They simply could not make the effort to keep it going any longer.

I will be driving past this little church every day, several times a day. It  breaks my heart. The congregation had been meeting on that spot for 228 years, and the very simple building (its second) had been lovingly cared for. It looks pristine on the inside as well as the outside, as if the carpet had just been laid and the walls just painted. It all seems such a waste. The local newspaper, in a prominent write-up with a photo of the building, declared that people just weren't going to church any more. It sounded like a death knell.

This is happening all over New England. Church buildings everywhere have become community centers, art galleries and studios, antique shops, private residences.  The saddest part of it all is that only a tiny fraction of the members of those congregations join other churches. Most of them stop going to church altogether. The loss of the memories is too painful. "I was baptized in that church, I was married in that church, I had always expected to be buried from that church."  There is an idolatry of church buildings, no question about that. I have been reading a history of the first two centuries of Christianity and it is hard not to conclude that there was great strength in those early congregations which had no buildings to meet in but were on fire with the good news of Jesus Christ the Lord. Yet today, when there are empty church buildings all over, it is easy for observers to conclude that faith is dead, that Christian worship has become irrelevant.

All of this has led me to reflect on a factor that has been bothering me for some years now. It is a pretty well-established fact that the most important factor in getting people to come to church and stay there is social. "Someone invited me." "I was shown in to the coffee hour and introduced to people." "People were friendly to me." This is so obvious that it should be addressed with the highest priority in all congregations. I can speak with some authority on this, because I have attended Sunday worship virtually every Sunday of my adult life somewhere, from Hawaii to Washington state to Florida to Minnesota to Maine--literally--and it is very rare for anyone even to acknowledge my presence, let alone escort me to coffee hour. I can name on fewer than ten fingers the number of churches where I have received a friendly greeting. Literally. It's easy to remember them because they were so few. Only one of them was an Episcopal church. Most recently, this past spring, Dick and I were amazed by the friendliness and vitality of the American (Protestant) Church in Paris. It made me want to join immediately. In contrast, I found the American Episcopal Church in Rome (St Paul's Within the Walls) to be singularly unfriendly even though I attended for three consecutive Sundays. Passing the peace has had no effect on this problem. I pass the peace to all my neighbors around me in the pews, and as soon as the service is over they immediately turn away from me as if to get out of the pew as fast as possible.

And that little Baptist church? No one knew that I was an ordained minister. No one knew anything about me at all. I was just an ordinary person who was visiting, a potential new member perhaps. I must have been reasonably conspicuous as a newcomer among 20 people, all of whom knew each other well. I attended services there at least 15 times. I introduced myself, spoke pleasantly to people, praised the service. Did anyone ever make an effort to get to know me? No.

One of the reasons I have always loved St. John's Episcopal Church in Salisbury, Connecticut, is that the first time I ventured there, a couple in their fifties recognized that I was a newcomer and drew me into their circle. Later I became interim pastor there. Every Sunday during the announcements, I asked newcomers to raise their hands and, jokingly, told them that if no one spoke to them they should report it to me immediately. This, amazingly enough, actually seemed to work.

The lack of a friendly greeting (with personal follow-up) is not the only reason that churches are closing, but it is a major factor just the same. Congregations and their leaders need to pay attention to this issue as a high priority. It can be done. The most important step to take is for church leaders to identify members who have real gifts for social outreach. These will be friendly, easygoing, unselfconscious people who enjoy meeting newcomers and are enthusiastic about their church family. These people are not common, but they do exist. It is just as important to identify them and put them to work as it is to find a church treasurer, an organist, and an investment committee. Maybe more important.

The couple who greeted me at St John's Church many years ago, the Finlays, are long since gone to be with the Lord, but they had everything to do with my being to this day a supporter of that congregation. They were gifted by the Holy Spirit with unusually outgoing personalities. In my experience it is better if such people don't wear a "greeter" badge. Being greeted by a "greeter" always seems a bit forced and artificial. The Finlays were not artificial. Such people have a special ministry, a gift which amounts to a form of evangelism. It would make a big difference if congregations put special emphasis on identifying members who are anointed in that way, and commissioning them to serve to reach out to every new person who comes in the door. This would surely be a move in the right direction to stop the attrition. As Ephesians 4:11-16 says, there are many gifts of the Spirit for building up the Body of Christ. This is a wonderful New Testament passage that every congregation should know, and it is directly relevant to the matter at hand.